On September 19, when David de Gea made a 95th-minute save to deny West Ham captain Mark Noble from the penalty spot at the London Stadium, it appeared that Manchester United was on the mend.
With all 20 clubs having played their first five matches, the club completed the day joint-top of the Premier League table, tied on points with Chelsea and Liverpool and three points ahead of cross-city rivals Manchester City. There was a sense of hope in the air, and the jubilation among the United players on the field following the full-time whistle demonstrated just how significant a win it was, ensuring the team’s early-season momentum was maintained.
United, particularly previous manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, had the weight of the world on their shoulders after spending more than £120 million on Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho, and Cristiano Ronaldo during the summer transfer window. The Norwegian had been heavily backed in the transfer window, and United had all of the resources they needed to challenge for English football’s top trophy once more, eight years after last winning it.
United now faces missing out on a place in next season’s Champions League just over five months later, with Saturday’s goalless draw with Watford the latest setback in an otherwise forgettable campaign. Arsenal, West Ham United, and Tottenham Hotspur are all breathing down their necks, despite the stalemate with the Hornets keeping them in the top four by the skin of their teeth.
In the rankings, West Ham is only one position and two points behind United, while Arsenal is two places and two points behind. They do, however, have three games in hand on United, which means they could pose the biggest threat to Ralf Rangnick’s side in the race for fourth.
Tottenham, meanwhile, is still in contention, with two games in hand on Liverpool. They remain, however, five points behind Rangnick’s side, putting them under further pressure to make the most of their games in hand, which include matches against Brighton & Hove Albion and top-four and local rivals Arsenal.
But how did the possibility of United failing to make the top four get to this point? During the summer, the club recruited three world-class players to its roster, successfully reinforcing three positions that were in desperate need of new blood.
Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, and West Ham United, on the other hand, did not improve their respective squads to anywhere like the same level. To be fair, the Gunners did spend a lot of money on Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, and Martin Odegaard, all of whom are superb players in their own right, but United’s signings of Varane, Sancho, and Ronaldo exceeded the north London club’s. Tottenham’s recruiting, like West Ham’s, was not particularly impressive, and you wouldn’t have thought it posed a threat to United.
The three London clubs, on the other hand, appear to be significantly more likely than United to finish in the top four, with the Reds’ errors, particularly at home, becoming far more frequent and destructive. The failure to win teams like Aston Villa, Everton, Southampton, and Watford on their own turf will cost United in May.
Those dismal results will not just keep United out of the Champions League. Failure to qualify for Europe’s best club competition may have disastrous ramifications for the club’s future manager, as it would limit the kind of players he could bring in and, more importantly, who he could maintain.
Although Ronaldo’s future is uncertain, he did not return to Old Trafford by playing in the Europa League on Thursday nights and warming his sofa on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings when the likes of Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappe light up our TV screens in the Champions League. That’s how alarming it’s gotten.
For United, the approaching summer will herald the start of a new era. Rangnick will be succeeded by a new manager, and new additions to the squad are expected, particularly in holding midfield and up forward.